WASHINGTON — As Afghanistan struggles to emerge from decades of conflict, the country’s new State Ministry for Peace aims to steer efforts to reach a lasting and inclusive peace.
“There’s no shortcut to peace. You can’t shortcut your way to resolving a 40-year-old conflict.”— Shoaib Rahim, senior adviser to Afghanistan’s minister for peace
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The ministry, created in July, is responsible for managing the country’s current peace negotiations and monitoring implementation of any future political settlement. The complexity of the conflict poses many challenges for reaching a peace deal that is palatable to the populace and can be translated into action, said Shoaib Rahim, senior adviser to the minister for peace.
“State Ministry for Peace is designed to be the one-stop shop for all peace affairs in the country,” Rahim said. “The citizens of Afghanistan have a right to have a say in the peace process. They have a right to have a say in the development of the country. And the State Ministry for Peace will develop these mechanisms to make sure that that inclusion is guaranteed.”
Rahim sat down with Devex on a recent trip to Washington to talk about how the ministry plans to craft that inclusive peace process, how it will engage international donors to align with the agenda, and why Afghans need to be the ones driving their own future.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did the Afghan government establish a peace ministry?
The conflict in Afghanistan has gone on for four decades and has taken different shapes and forms. There are different contributors to conflict. It’s not just ideological. From afar, it looks ideological, but when you scratch under the surface, you see that some of the conflict is territorial dispute, some of it is water dispute, some of it is ethnic and clan and tribal tensions. Some of it is just individual grievances among leaders in different communities. The ministry is tasked to map the various drivers of conflict within the country which have a blanket ideological outlook but have different drivers, identify/map those, and then tailor-make solutions to resolve and address those.
Governments like short-term wins. How will the Afghan government ensure a focus on that long-term planning?
Ironically, the issue of long-term thinking is reversed in Afghanistan. Right now, our government is pushing for a more long-term approach, a more sound and sustainable peace process. But the political actors in the country — the opposition, the parties, former presidents — they’re the ones pushing for quick results, quick wins, and immediate gains. And they’re willing to cut corners. There’s no shortcut to peace. You can’t shortcut your way to resolving a 40-year-old conflict.
There are so many external actors who want to have a say in what peace looks like in Afghanistan. How will this impact success?
There are three major challenges. One is there is no unity of direction. Everyone is pushing in their different direction, so it reduces the impact of the effort and investment and the work and support that’s put into it. I think that’s the biggest challenge.
Second is what the Afghans want and what the Afghan people want and what the Afghan state wants becomes secondary. The donors tend to listen to themselves. The government, the will of the people becomes sidelined. They don’t listen.
The third challenge is that the prioritization is off. There’s huge disagreement on what needs to be prioritized. Do we go for major infrastructure or small quick wins in rural areas? Do we do programs such as Jobs for Peace or a $50 million massive highway? Priorities become confusing.
These challenges complicate and create an environment of ambiguity. We’re already in a conflict, so that ambiguity is not helpful. What the ministry tries to do is — with a very specific focus on peace — we try to identify these gaps, communicate them, and try to steer them in a proper direction.
How are you working with development actors?
We’re working very closely with major development partners. We’re working very, very closely with the World Bank when it comes to preparing for post-settlement development. You need to be ready. We work with the United Nations and all the suborganizations. We’re working with USAID — they’re one of the major donors in Afghanistan trying to make sure that programs and projects efforts and staffing and the vision is in line with the peace process.
The timing is important. The development community can’t just say, “Oh, we’re going to wait until you actually reach an agreement, and then we’ll start thinking about this.” Once you put pen to paper, the development community can’t play catch-up.
I think donors recognize this, to be fair. I think there’s greater recognition that we need to prepare for a new chapter.
The Afghanistan Papers demonstrated the dangers of past U.S. development policy for the country and how money was not always being spent with long-term development success in mind. Does that attitude still exist?
We hope that that attitude is less so today. Afghans and the Afghan government have always been saying that our international partners need to listen to us. We understand the problem better than you do. We are grateful for your support. We appreciate the aid. We appreciate the funding.
But we need to be responsible with these resources. We need to be prudent with our spending. And we could only be prudent by listening to the people we’re trying to help. That is still the case. You still need to listen to the Afghans. And you still need to appreciate joint decision-making. It cannot be done solo. Solo fails.
How is the Peace Ministry making sure you’re integrating the will of the people into both the negotiations and future development planning?
We are working on developing mechanisms and platforms that allow for citizens across the country, down to the district level, to be able to engage us in the peace process and also be able to say yes or no on a lot of decisions being made. It’s a two-way channel. We have a citizen charter program which is one of the most successful platforms across the country regarding community development. It’s called CDCs, Community Development Councils, where a specific amount of resources are given [and] we leave the decision up to the community.
What the Peace Ministry is working on right now — it’s still not finalized — is engaging those platforms on peace and making sure that the ministry and our government is fully aware of what the people want and it has the mandate and support of the people every step of the way.
This is a conversation that the entire population of the country needs to have. We cannot allow elite capture. We cannot allow a small group of elite politicians which are disconnected with the general population, who do not represent the entirety and the diversity of Afghan society, to dictate how this looks.
How are you ensuring Afghan citizens are aware that you are soliciting their opinions?
In these mechanisms, we will mobilize community elders, civil society, youth, women across the country to engage these platforms and to represent their communities. So having a direct say means their communities have a direct say. It’s not just an information thing — it’s a participation issue. It’s not just, “Oh, send out a note so people know.” People sit at the table and their concerns are actually heard. The intention of the government is to make sure that this inclusion is not just in words and on paper — that this inclusion is real, that people feel that it’s real.
The test of the success and failure of this commitment will be if and when there's a political settlement between the government and the Taliban, whether they accept it or reject it. Because it will be put either to a referendum or a parliamentary process or a grand assembly. If the ministry does its job right, if the government does its job right, it means that the will of the people has been reflected throughout the process and the final product people will be comfortable with.
How are you ensuring women have meaningful participation in the peace process?
The State Ministry for Peace is a strong believer in civil liberties guaranteed in the Constitution of Afghanistan, particularly women’s rights, and the progress that our country has made in ensuring that women are protected, that their rights are protected, and that they have more and more opportunities. That is our core belief. We reflect that belief as much as possible in our day-to-day decisions, which means we work very hard to ensure greater female representation in the negotiating team, in peace dialogues, as well as pushing the agenda of civil liberties and women’s rights higher if and when the direct negotiations begin with the Taliban.
We are starting to engage a lot of women’s rights groups. Not just in Kabul but across the 34 provinces to make sure that the diverse range of female voices are reflected. There’s diversity when it comes to women’s rights. We are trying very hard to reflect that. The challenge is to energize and empower women communities across the country to raise their voice.